In a culture that celebrates grinders, it can seem that the only way to get ahead and increase your productivity is to work more hours than anyone else and sacrifice any sense of balance, sleep and well-being.
I fell into this trap through my 20s and early 30s. I worked long days and late nights, tried to hack my sleep down to 4 hours, gave up a social life and lost all balance in my life.
Looking back, I realize how much time I wasted in front of my computer labouring away, when I could have taken better care of myself and achieved more by doing so.
At 34, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, known to be caused by the kind of extreme stress I inflicted on myself in my early working years. It was the wake-up call I needed to find an approach to work and life that didn’t sacrifice my physical, psychological and emotional well-being in order to perform at a high level.
What I found through my research and personal discovery shocked me. Decades of research in neuroscience, psychology and physiology are ignored by today’s working culture. Our practices at work have not yet caught up to the science. The result is a society where productivity is dropping, while anxiety, stress and burnout are on the rise.
The importance of rest
One of the most important principles I’ve learned is that stress must be balanced with rest.
Our bodies and minds are designed for stress – it’s how we grow stronger and smarter. However, when we experience too much stress, or endure prolonged periods of stress without proper recovery time, performance declines and health issues arise.
That’s why working 10 to 12 hour days, and sacrificing breaks, weekends and sleep is such a bad idea. To be at the top of our performance and creativity in life we need to redefine our relationship with rest, downtime and sleep, and recognize them as equally productive parts of our lives.
“Our practices at work have not yet caught up to the science.”
In a study conducted on a group of violinists, researchers compared elite performers and average performers. Surprisingly, the amount of time each group spent practicing was almost identical.
However, they did find two key differences: the structure and rigor of their practice, and the quality of their downtime. Elite performers practiced in two consistent time periods of the day, broken up by focused and ample leisure time, and slept an hour more per night than the average players.
This phenomenon of “elite level rest” is consistent across dozens of studies in academics, business and sports. Top performers and earners know how to relax, so that they can focus their energy in the right moments to practice and perform at elite levels.
Understanding some of the science is great, but how can you apply it to your life? Here are a few productivity hacks to help improve your performance and wellness at work:
- Don’t overwork your brain
We have approximately 4 to 5 hours of focused cognitive capacity in a day. Try to avoid spending more than that on your most challenging work each day, as it will lead to diminishing returns and take away from valuable time you could spend restoring your mind for tomorrow.
- Work in timed blocks
The brain can perform at full cognitive capacity for up to 90 minutes before it needs a rest. Plan your work day in 90-minute focus blocks, with breaks built in before and after your most cognitively-demanding work. If 90 minutes of focused work feels hard, start with 45 minute blocks and build from there.
- Use your first hours wisely
We have a limited amount of will power and decision-making capability that diminishes throughout the day. (That’s why it’s harder to resist junk food and other guilty pleasures later in the day and evening.) Your first few hours of the day are your best for tackling challenging work. Instead of triaging email and communications first thing in the morning, put that off until you’ve had at least 90 minutes to tackle your most important priority of the day. You’ll get more done in less time.
Focus your mental energy on one thing at a time, and remove all distractions and notifications. Multitasking has been shown to cannibalize up to 40% of our time, degrade the quality of our work and raise stress markers in our body. Even checking your email or having notifications buzzing around you can lower your productivity. Try turning off notifications on all your devices and putting your phone away for your focused work blocks.
- Take “constructive boredom” breaks
Take mental space breaks throughout the day. Spending your breaks on your phone does not allow your brain to relax or process your thoughts and ideas. Go for a walk, meditate, listen to a few songs or simply daydream for 5 to 10 minutes a few times throughout the day. I call this “constructive boredom.” It’s remarkable how much better you feel and function after short, technology-free breaks.
- Get quality sleep
Sleep is an incredibly important component of productivity and creativity. We all need 7 to 9 hours of good quality sleep per night. Anything less than that and your cognitive performance drops significantly and puts you at risk of serious health issues. Going to bed and waking up at a consistent time has a huge effect on quality of sleep. I’ve previously written about sleep and how to improve the quality of it.
If all these changes sound overwhelming, try introducing one new thing every one or two weeks so you have time to start forming a practice for each. It can be hard work building new habits, but the payoff is worth it.
For me, balancing my stress and rest has improved the quality of my work, my mindset and increased my well-being dramatically.
I am calmer in meetings, on stage speaking and at home with my family. I broke the cycle of overwork and diminishing returns, and now get more done in a single 90-minute work block than I used to in an entire day.
Best of all, I know that I’m taking care of my body, and not causing undue stress and damage. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. What’s the point of financial success if you’re not healthy enough to enjoy it?